‘the queer impression of whiteness coming upwards: as if the light was below the sea instead of above it… the fairy glow or white reflection that I had experienced long ago’
Mr Ronald Bells, World Fishing, 1954
It’s a magic that can be found across the world’s oceans, but is particularly innate to the North Atlantic; to the Norwegian fjords, southern Iceland, the English Channel; this magical blooming, this milky turquoise, this white water, this fairy glow shining upwards as if from a subterranean castle.
If I told you it was caused by fairies would you be enthralled? We all know the fay can take many shapes and forms from the microscopic to the macrocosms of huge hulking universes stalking through the void. Well I shall tell you it is created by beings who work fairy magic called emiliania huxleyii.
Emiliania Huxleyi is a single-celled marine phytoplankton which dwells in the surface waters of all the world’s oceans and lives by photosynthesis – using the energy of the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and energy. This is not its only magical art. As a coccolithophore it forges intricate coccoliths – scales or platelets like plate armour – deep within its cell from calcium carbonate. When emiliania huxleyi blooms it sheds hundreds of extra coccoliths, which act like mirrors, creating the fairy glow, just like the countless shifting walls of the Fairy King’s castle.
The blooming of emiliania huxleyi, its fairy glow, has a number of profound ecological effects. The first and most obvious is its alteration of the ocean’s albedo ‘whiteness’. This results in more light and heat being reflected into the atmosphere and less penetrating deeper into the water, thus cooling the ocean.
It also affects the carbon cycle. The ocean is the earth’s largest active carbon sink. Emiliania huxelyi plays a significant role in the carbon pump by which it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Emiliania huxleyi utilises carbon absorbed by the ocean to create its calcium carbonate plate armour. When it blooms it removes an excessive amount. Afterwards, some coccoliths sink to the depths as marine snow, removing the carbon from the cycle for millions of years, to be revealed as chalk formations such as the White Cliffs of Dover and the Seven Sisters. Some coccoliths decompose and release their carbon back into the ocean. The partial pressure* of carbon dioxide in the ocean determines how much can be taken from the atmosphere in this complex transaction.
By a less obvious magic emiliania huxleyi’s blooming brings about the formation of clouds. Emiliania huxleyi contains dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), which it breaks down into dimethyl sulphide (DMS) and acrylic acid to ward off predators. DMSP is also converted to DMS when it dies. Huge pulses of DMS are also released when emiliania huxleyi blooms. DMS reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere leaving molecules of sulphate aerosol to act as cloud condensation nuclei (CNN). As the clouds form and rise due to energy being released as heat, emiliania huxleyi is sucked up with the surface water and travels in the clouds to fall as rain or snow in a new region.
Scientists are only just beginning to gain an understanding of this magic. Blooms of emiliania huxleyi cool the ocean through reflectance and cloud generation and remove a great amount of carbon from the ocean. In this era of man-driven climate change these processes are of fundamental importance.
It is therefore troubling to hear that the existence of emiliania huxleyi is under threat from ocean acidification. The rise in carbon emissions has led to an increase in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide, dissolved inorganic carbon, and bicarbonate ion concentration, and decrease in the concentration of carbonate ions and pH in the ocean. The decrease in carbonate ions makes it more difficult for emiliania huxleyi to create its calcium carbonate shell. Its beautifully crafted plate armour is becoming thinner, weaker, lighter, and suffering malformations. Emiliania huxleyi could die out.
I believe it is no coincidence that emiliania huxleyi has started revealing itself on the brink of its’ extinction. Thomas Henry Huxley discovered coccoliths whilst dredging mud in the depths of the ocean in 1858. Thus, it was named coccolithus huxleyi when identified under a light microscope in 1902. Its structure was described under an electron microscope by Braacht et al in 1952. Cesare Emiliania’s name was added in honour of his contributions to paleooceanography. Much of his work involved drilling cores into the sea bottom and revolutionised our ideas about the ocean’s history.
As someone versed in fairylore my feelings about the methods of the discovery of emiliania huxleyi are mixed. I’m not sure if I see Huxley and Emiliania as walkers between worlds whose genius and dedication has earned them great gifts of insight from Faerie, or as raiders like Arthur whose dredgers and drill cores are the flashing swords coercing the Otherworld’s mysteries into Thisworld’s light.
One thing I’m sure of is that the disappearance of the fairy glow of emiliania huxleyi is a powerful portent of the retreat of the magic of the fay and breakdown of the relationship between the worlds. The loss of this enigmatic phytoplankton would not only be sad, but could play a role in bringing about the end of the world as we know it as magical being by magical being slips away into the deep.
*Partial pressure ‘is the hypothetical pressure of that gas if it alone occupied the entire volume of the original mixture at the same temperature.’
J. D. Shutler et al, ‘Coccolithophore surface distributions in the North Atlantic and
their modulation of the air-sea flux of CO 2 from 10 years of Earth System Dynamics satellite Earth observation data’, Biogeosciences, 10, 2699-2709, 2013
K. J. S. Meier et al, The role of ocean acidification in Emiliania huxleyi coccolith thinning in the Mediterranean Sea’, HAL Archives-ouvertes, 2016, https://hal-univ-perp.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01280556, accessed 29th April 2018
Sophie Richier et al, ‘Response of the calcifying coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi to low pH/high pCO 2 : from physiology to molecular level’, Marine Biology, 158: 551-560, 2011
Stephen Harding, Animate Earth, (Green Books, 2009)
William H. Wilson et al., Isolation of viruses responsible for the demise of an Emiliania huxleyi bloom in the English Channel’, Journal of Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom, 82, 369 – 377, 2002
Emiliania Huxleyi Home Page, Science Netwatch, http://www.soes.soton.ac.uk/staff/tt/, accessed 26th April 2018
‘Partial Pressure’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partial_pressure, accessed 29th April, 2018